Friday, January 25, 2008

Speaking of Artists Against War

I wrote this article about the Peace Reel Film Festival that Artists Against War organized last year for the website of the Canadian Labour International Film Festival. CLIFF is launching in 2009 but has begun planning now. Check it out.

When we launched Artists Against War in February, 2003 we had no money, no infrastructure and no staff (much like today, actually). But with a looming war, we knew we had to do something.
And so in the space of two months we organized the One Big No festival in Nathan Philips Square, which culminated in a concert with some of Canada’s biggest name acts, including Sarah Harmer, Jian Ghomeshi and the Lowest of the Low. We estimate that 20,000 people came out over the course of the event, which included 96 acts and dozens of arts displays and community tables, with several thousand at the final concert alone.
We’re now five years distant from the high point of the anti-war movement and the One Big No festival but we’ve continued to organize because the wars continue. And if the neo-cons and Harper’s Tories have their way, we’ll be in Iran next.
The need to sustain a culture that stands against the war agenda still exists.
It was with this in mind that we decided to organize the Peace Reel Film Festival last year.
None of us had ever organized a film festival before. As with One Big No, we had no funding sources save our own pockets – we’ve raised thousands of dollars over the years but we’ve given it all back to the movement, for buses to protests, for War Resisters, etc.
But we felt there was a need and that we had a good idea: an outdoor film festival dedicated to anti-war and anti-imperialist films.
We decided on Christie Pits Park, which has a natural slope that makes it perfect for theatre-style outdoor seating. And we decided on one feature length film each Sunday for four weeks over July and August.
If we were to have any success we knew that we would have to have films that were a draw. Classics became fifty percent of our program with The Battle of Algiers as our closing night screening and Kahnesetake: 270 Years of Resistance, about the Oka Standoff in 1990, on another night.
As luck would have it, the Omeish brothers released their incredibly powerful documentary on Palestine, Occupation 101, in the United States but not in Canada. We contacted them and they agreed to have Occupation 101 premiere at Peace Reel – and one of the brothers, Sufyan, would come up and introduce the film.
Then we contacted the producer/director of The Prisoner: or how I planned to kill Tony Blair. It screened the year before at TIFF to good reviews but hadn’t gotten a wide release.
There was now a full program of features and we put out a call for shorts, as well as soliciting others. It was way to get a wider exposure for local artists than they might otherwise have the opportunity to achieve.
The opening day of the festival it poured rain and we bit our nails. Sufyan arrived safe and sound with a suitcase filled with DVDs to sell to help cover their debts from the film. We were worried that nobody would be there to buy them.
We located the screen near a covered picnic area, which meant that if it continued raining we could set up under shelter. But still: would anyone come?
Then half an hour before sunset, the rain stopped and as showtime approached the people began arriving, first by trickles and then in groups. Soon it was standing room only underneath the picnic area. Over 200 people showed up.
There was a great discussion and Sufyan received a standing ovation for his film. He sold all his DVDs.
The premiere was a high point for the Festival, to be sure. But the remaining events were also successes: over 100 people came every other night. The final night, filmmaker Peter Raymont (Shake Hands with the Devil) introduced The Battle of Algiers to a crowd of 135 people. Close to 600 people came out over the course of the Festival.
There’s something wonderful about sitting on a hillside in a park and watching great films about some of the most important struggles of our times
It’s an opportunity to build a community of resistance that shares the time-outs, as well as the hard work; about infusing the air we breathe in our little corner of the world with the dream that a better world is possible. Isn’t that part of what winning change is all about?
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